Eyewitness Account: The Ceasefire

By Ewa Jasiewicz

reporting from Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip 10-11th January 2009

Last night was a quiet one in Jabaliya. ‘Only’ six homes bombed into the
ground, the Market, again, maybe four lightly injured people – shrapnel to
the face injuries – and no martyrs. Beit Hanoun saw a young woman, Nariman
Ahmad Abu Owder, just 17, shot dead as she made tea in her family’s
kitchen. It was 9pm in the Hay Amel area when witnesses reported
‘thousands’ of bullets shot by tanks onto homes in Azrah Street.

We got a call to go to Tel Al Zater looking for the dead and injured,
around 2am. ‘This area is dangerous, very very dangerous’, warned one
volunteer rescuer Mohammad al Sharif as our ambulance bumped along sandy,
lumpy ground, lighting up piles of burning rubbish, stray cats,  political
graffiti, and the ubiquitous strung out coloured sack cloth and stripy
material in large thin squares, tenting the pavements. What is it?
Protection, I am told, so that the surveillance planes won’t see the
fighters. Palestinian body armour.

Mohammad, and Ahmad Abu Foul, a Civil Defence medical services coordinator
told me they had been shot at by Israeli snipers yesterday. Mohammd had
recounted the story, still counting his blessings, earlier on at the
ambulance station. They’d gone hurtling over graves and tombstones to
fetch casualties when Israeli snipers opened fire. They’d laid down flat
on the ground until the firing stopped. Ahmad, 24, another rescuer here,
told me he had been shot in the chest – in his bullet proof vest – close
to the Atarturah area whilst trying to evacuate corpses three days ago.
His brother, he had told me, had been injured 14 times working as a
paramedic. ‘14 times. Then he got hit by an Apache. Then it was serious.
That took him out of work for a few months’, he explained.

Back to Tel Al Zater, we searched with micro torches, sweeping over slabs
of broken homes and free running water from freshly smashed pipes. A black
goat was trapped in a rubble nest. We stepped over broken blown in metal
doors off their hinges. Nothing, none, ‘snipers’, on our minds. We ended
up leaving with one casualty, lightly injured, more in shock that anything
else. Explosions continued through the night. Abrupt slumps into concrete
echoing around the hospital, like rapid beats to a taut drum skin.
This morning was a different story. I’ve been finding that the most
missile-heavy times seem to be between 7-9am. I counted 20 strikes in
those two hours this morning. I’d come to Mohammad’s house. He went
straight to bed, exhausted. I’d caught some sleep spread across the front
seats of the rickety ambulance, waking up periodically to respond to
calls.

At Mohammad’s I did some badly overdue washing and went towards the roof
with it. ‘Ewa, do you want to martyr yourself?’ said Sousou, Mohammd’s 19
year old sister, a bright sciences student unable to finish her studies
due to her university – the Islamic University – having been bombed last
week. Hanging out washing on the roof here is a potential act of suicide –
there are stories of people having been shot dead on rooftops. Walking
down the street to buy bread, also a potential act of suicide. Visiting
family, going to the market, drinking tea in your own home – a potential
act of suicide? In the end I do go up, with 9 year old plucky Afnan, who
hands me pegs nervously as we scan the skies periodically, while the
murderous sneer of Israeli surveillance drones leers above us.

Zomou
The call comes as soon as I get to Al Awda. It’s 11.40am. A strike in
Mahkema street, Zoumou, Eastern Jabaliya . The streets of Moaskar Jabaliya
are fuller than I’ve seen them for weeks. Fruit and vegetable sellers with
wooden carts full of clay clodded potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers,
aubergines, mountains of strawberries, bags of flour, plastic bottles of
vegetable oil and rice, line the streets. The reason everyone’s here,
exposed like this is because with the market being bombed, the streets
have become the market.

We roar through manically, siren blaring, Abu Bassem, one of the oldest
and most hyper ambulance drivers, yells hoarsely at anyone nonchalant
enough to not notice the screaming column of ambulances zooming towards
them, past broken buildings, debris covered streets, twisted tin can
warehouses and rubble homes.

Out of the city, we’re met by a crowd running towards us with a blanket
hump on the back of a donkey cart. Jumping out I see bloodied legs and
arms sticking it out of it, ‘Shoohadda!!’ Martyrs - yells the crowd
running along with it, whilst others gesture wildly to go on, go on ahead.
Jumping back in we get to the house where it all happened. A woman in her
50s, in black, has her arms around a large, lifeless woman. Pools of blood
surround them. They’re cramped into a corner, the woman crying and
clinging to her. We need to peel her away and lift the woman, cold,
lifeless and shoeless, onto a stretcher. This is Randa Abid Rubbu, 38. Her
relative or friend comes in too, unable to stand, unable to speak or move,
we drag her on and she has to slump on the ambulance floor. Next we bring
in Ahmad Mohammad Nuffar Salem, 21, with 16 shrapnel injuries, tearing at
his own clothes in pain, they needed to be cut off.

Six members of the Abid Rubbu family were killed in the strike on their
house. It happened at 11.40am. Ahmad, 21, explains ‘We were all eating
together, and then we were struck’. The consensus amongst paramedics was
that it was a tank shell, although the family thought it was a shell from
an Israeli navel vessel.

Mohammad Abid Rubbu, 50, explains to me, that in the night his other
family homes were struck three times by F16 fighter jets. ‘Thirty of us
spent the whole of last night hiding under ground, in the basement. Our
whole street was full of fire. They (the Israelis) spent one and a half
hours attacking us. They destroyed three of our family’s homes. All the
martyrs today, they were underground with us last night’.

Kamal Odwan’s ‘Mosque’
Kamal Odwan Hospital is the main port of call for the bulk of emergency
services, once a local clinic, it has now grown, concomitantly with the
population of the north, now 350,000, into a hospital. Since the bombing
of an average of one in ten mosques in the Jabaliya area according to
local Imams, Kamal Odwan is now also a prayer site, an open-air mosque.
Rows of men kneel together daily in the car-park round the corner from the
overflowing morgue; praying also takes place at the side of the lines of
parked ambulances and in the little garden area in front of the reception
and ER. The emergency staff, the families and friends of new martyrs, all
pray together in perhaps the last place of sanctuary in Jabaliya, knowing
that as soon as they set foot outside, they’re fair game for snipers,
surveillance drones, Apaches, Cobras, F16 and F15 fired missiles,
shrapnel, flying chunks of house, glass, and nails that are shredding
people here. White phosphorous too is reportedly being used, along with a
white mist of nerve gas hanging in Jabaliya a few days ago and over Beit
Hanoun, in the Zoumou street area.

Today at least three casualties, all of them elderly women, were brought
into Beit Hanoun hospital suffering from inhalation of this gas, which
chokes people, tightening chests and nasal passages and rendering people
dizzy and disorientated; we were all affected by it, despite being maybe
half a kilometre away from the site of its’ release. As I finish writing
this now, in the offices of Ramatan News, the same gas, nerve fraying,
chest tightening, tear-inducing and confusing is seeping into the offices.

The director of public relations at Kamal Odwan, Moayad Al Masri, whose
family now lives in the Fakhoura School refugee camp gives me the stats
for the past week. Every day approximately 20 people are being killed, by
tank shelling, apache, F16, and surveillance plane missile strikes.
December 27th 14 people killed, 52 injured, 28th, 6 killed, 22 injured,
29th 15 killed, 102 injured, 30th, 2 killed, 11 injured, 31st,  3 killed,
3 injured, New Years Day, 17 killed, 67 injured, January 2nd 6 killed, 10
injured, Jan 3rd, 13 killed, 43 injured, Jan 4th, 28 killed, 35 injured,
Jan 5th, 15 killed, 98 injured, Jan 6th 50 killed, 101 injured, Jan 7th,
17 killed, 33 injured, Jan 8th, 11 killed, 53 injured, Jan 9th, 15 killed
and 63 injured, January 10th 22 killed and 53 injured, and today, this
morning six people had been killed so far. Four of them children. Two
sisters Saher Ghabban 16 and Haowla Ghabban 14, and Fatima Mahrouf 16 and
Haitham Mahrouf. Witnesses report that they were leaving their home at the
UNRWA Beit Lahiya school, to go home to wash and make food. They were
walking near strawberry fields in Sheyma when they were struck by a
surveillance plane missile.

I go to meet a friend from Beit Hanoun at the hospital. It takes stopping
five different taxi drivers before I finally get one who agrees to take
me. Missiles have been falling throughout the afternoon ‘ceasefire’.
Everyone has heard about cars and their passengers zapped in two by
missiles from surveillance drones. We all engage in a kind of Russian
roulette every time we move, knowing we might be the unlucky ones next.

In Beit Hanoun we hear about six families from the Abu Amsha House - 50
people- having to flee their four story home after the IOF called to give
them five minutes to leave or before being bombed. As the families
frantically gathered their belongings – mattresses, blankets, clothes,
documents, photographs – and made their way down the stairs, an Israeli
F16 war plane bombed them. 27 were injured, four of them seriously,
including one with shrapnel in the spinal area.

A house upon them
We meet Mohammd Zoadi Abu Amsha, a United National employee running a
local job creation programme and the son of Hajj Zohaadi Amsha, the owner
of the destroyed house. Mohammad’s house, opposite the Abu Amsha house,
had its windows blown out in the attack. I asked him why he thinks the
house was targeted ‘This is the policy of Israel , the logic is to make us
leave this land, make us leave our homes, to clear this land for their
occupation and ownership of it. That’s what this is about. There were no
fighters here by the way’ he says, ‘This is a civilian house, my father is
80 years old, he worked as a teacher for the UN’. As we’re talking,
children that have gathered around us point to the sky, ‘look, look,
Apache’ they say. And we look at it, flying silently across the sky,
puffing out a perfect line of burning dazzle flares. A boy of about 10
spots a piece of missile, the size of a large marrow, electronic parts
still intact, and lugs it up to us, ‘Take care’ we shout to him; he
scrambles over debris and then lobs it onto the ground in front of us. All
our hearts skip a beat.

Back at Kamal Odwan, we hear the news. Wafa Al Masri, 40 years old, and
nine months pregnant was walking to Kamal Odwan Hospital , to give birth.
With her was her sister, 26 year old Raghada Masri. They were passing
through the Dewar Maboob crossroads in the Beit Lahiya Project area. It
was 4.30pm. Witnesses said they were hit directly by a missile from a
surveillance drone. Daniel, a half Ukrainian paramedic here described the
scene. ‘Her legs were shredded, there was just meat, and she had a serious
chest injury, hypoxemia’. Wafa was transferred to Shifa for a double leg
amputation, from the Fema (upper thigh area down). Paramedics were
apprehensive about her or her unborn child making it. Medics managed to
save the right foot of Raghada Masri, 26. I visited her at Kamal Odwan
today. Visibly distressed and writhing in pain, she recounted the story:
‘We were walking down the street when we heard the sound of the plane, I
can still hear ringing in my ears. We were hit by a missile. We were in
the area right in the main street, in broad daylight. We would never have
expected this. I saw smoke, and I saw Wafa’s legs all mangled. She was
thrown metres away from me, I was thrown too. Her mandeel was torn off her
head, her hair was all burnt, she didn’t look like my sister, her hair was
gone, everyone was saying to me, ‘she’s a martyr, she’s a martyr.’ Today I
learned medics managed to save one leg and that she gave birth to a
healthy boy.

Bombing civilians
At 5pm, whilst we’re gathering info on the bombing of Wafa and her sister,
ambulances and taxis bring over casualties. There’s been a tank bombing of
an apartment building, the Burge al Sultan, in Jabaliya. Three dead, two
of them children, and five injured. Again Daniel brought them in. He’s
sitting in the ambulance stunned and staring into space. ‘In all my days,
I’ve never seen anything like this’, he says. ‘First they fired one
missile at the roof of the building, this got people running out of the
building. Then they fired another one, at the people outside, and then
when we turned up, they fired another one. I don’t understand. And they
were all civilians’. The weapon of choice was a Kadifa – a tank shell that
releases tiny flachettes; spiked arrows that tear into flesh at lightning
speed. Daniel went on to say that ambulance staff and helpers were shot at
by snipers when evacuating casualties. Ashar al Battish, 33, lost his two
brothers in the attack. ‘Kids were playing in the street, and then three
missiles were shot at us. He – he says, gesturing to his brother on an ER
bed – was shot by a sniper in the chest, and another sniper’s bullet
grazed his face’.

When I began writing this I was on the fifth floor of the Al Awda
Hospital, a few things have happened in between. I was buying coffee,
snickers bars to chop up for the guys, and some shampoo when from the
local shop when we got a call at around 9.30pm, to pick up casualties from
the Bier Najje area, Western Jabaliya. We wove our way up, a column of
rickety vans. Our ambulance had a plastic bin bag held up with brown
parcel tape for a back window after it was blasted out last week – too
close to an F16 repeat attack.

When we reached the casualty zone, near a mini roundabout flanked with
painted portraits of pale PFLP fighters, and orange groves on our right,
we drove slowly up towards the leading ambulance which had stopped up
ahead. As we were approaching, the crew suddenly came running towards us,
waving their arms for us to move, move, get back, get back. We reversed
sharply and a minute later advanced again as they receded back to the
ambulance. I jump out with the stretcher and start to assemble it but I’m
told, ‘Get back inside, get back inside, this is a dangerous area!’ They
have their casualty, we pick up another with a leg injury on our way back,
and when we get back to base it transpires that a surveillance plane
missile was shot directly onto the crew ahead but failed to explode.
Unknown to us, it had been lying beside the ambulance when we came up to
see about the injured.

As well as this, there were two F16 missile strikes on targets just a few
hundred metres away from Al Awda. Both enormous bangs shook the building,
shattered a window and sent everyone running for cover.
An empty dead-zone

I asked the paramedics, what happened when they went to collect bodies and
the injured from the areas where street fighting is taking place, places
like Tel Al Zater, Salahadeen Street, Atahtura, Azbet Abu Rubbu - closed
to everyone and anyone but the Israeli Occupation Forces. During 1-4pm
there is supposed to be a ceasefire and co-ordination between paramedics
and the Israeli army, through the Red Cross. Of the three paramedics I
asked, all of their replies were the same. ‘We saw none’. ‘It was like a
ghost town’. Despite being finding bodies over the past week, including
one baby which had been half eaten by dogs – photos, film and witnesses at
Kamal Odwan confirm it – and bodies which had been run over by tanks, when
they went yesterday, they found nobody, and came back to base empty
handed. ‘I think the Israelis must have taken the bodies away, I think
they must have taken them away by bulldozer and buried them’. The
terrifying this is that there are still people trapped in their homes if
their homes are still standing, without food, water, or electricity.
Refugees at the Al Fakhoura school report not being able to recognise
their areas, their streets after the heavy fighting and destruction of so
many houses. When these areas are finally accessible to people, the full
extent of the killing and destruction will at last be known.

Meanwhile, as the killing continues, the Ministry of Health ambulances in
the north are becoming slowly paralysed. Four M.O.H ambulances based at
Kamal Odwan have no fuel and have been grounded, two have just half a tank
each. One in Beit Hanoun has also been immobilised. A senior source
coordinating the rescue services who did not wish to be named, said, ‘We
haven’t go the capacity now to respond. The Civil Defence and the Red
Crescent will go out, we cannot, only in case of a major emergency. In
case of another strike like the one at Fakhoura, the injured will have to
be transported by donkey cart. People will die’. Petrol is available, just
a short drive away in Salahadeen Street, although Israeli Occupation
Forces control the area and won’t let any vehicle pass. To add to the
M.O.H’s woes, the radios they’ve had since the beginning of the invasion
have had no service – there’s been no radio contact between the base and
ambulances and the Jawwal mobile network is also frequently down.

So everybody who can, still keeps going. Israeli war planes keep targeting
civilians. The evidence piling up points to a deliberate campaign and
policy of targeting civilians. And the bombs keep falling, thudding all
around all of us, everywhere we go, everywhere we sleep, everywhere we
walk, drive, sit and pray. Everyone is exhausted and just wants these
attacks to end and for a real ceasefire to materialise.

——-
Ewa Jasiewicz is an experienced journalist, community and union organizer,
and solidarity worker. She is currently Gaza Project Co-coordinator for
the Free Gaza Movement.

 


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